Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Folk School continues to grow

Annual meeting features pie, optimistic future


ELY – Mary Louise Icenhour is a second-generation Slovenian, born and raised in Ely, and was raised on ethnic foods like walnut potica and apple strudel. Her mother taught potica-making classes back in the 1970s at the local junior college.

She has taken that family tradition and offered her to teach her skills at the fledgling Ely Folk School. “When I heard back in 2014 that we were going to have a folk school here, I jumped on it because I felt I had something to contribute,” Icenhour said last weekend during the EFS’s annual meeting get-together.

The cooking classes at the Ely Folk School usually fill up fast and they are the most popular of the variety of classes available. “I am having a blast, and I must admit that I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have a platform to tell my little stories about growing up in Ely. It is a very meaningful experience for me and I get a sense of total gratification when I see the look of accomplishment on students’ faces,” she said.

Icenhour also teaches a pastie-making class. “People tell me they can never roll out pie dough. Thanks to the Methodist Church recipe, it rolls out just like a dream, and the look of satisfaction is all I really need,” she said.

“The key thing we do is to provide learning and the important key to that is the instructors,” Icenhour said. “We really rely on a variety of expertise. It takes a lot of us to fulfill.”

EFS Board of Directors Vice President and Marketing Director Molly Olson moderated the annual report gathering last Saturday afternoon for EFS members and volunteers that ended on a sweet note with a pie and ice cream social.

She reminded attendees the reason why the Ely Folk School exists. “Our mission is to build community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness, art, history, culture and craft of the people of northern Minnesota,” she said

EFS Board President Paul Schurke, the only remaining original board member, reflected on where the organization started and where it is going. “Just a few springs ago we had just a general idea of what we wanted to do,” he said. “We have taken root and grown little by little at a manageable pace.”

In the beginning the goal of the EFS was to teach learn and create, he said, “but mostly we wanted and to be a connecting point for the community and we seem to be filling that role rather nicely.”

Class programming at the EFS is coordinated by Betty Firth. She listed several highlights:

Over 220 classes this year;

 Ely Winter Festival offered 24 classes;

 March Bee Weekend included 13 classes and demonstrations;

New offerings include traditional beading; ink drawing, egg painting, soil clinic, cheese-making, and recreational hammocking;

Birch Bark Canoe Project is in its second year;

Themed Weekends included Fabulous Fiber Arts in November

Community dances included dance instruction.

Raising a traditional timber frame structure (see sidebar)

Firth highlighted the pavilion-building project. “This is an opportunity to join with others and to enjoy learning something and then making something,” she said. It Is like all the classes we have here. I see when peole get together, some are very adept at doing what they come to learn, and others are purely beginners, but everyone enjoys learning that next step and doing things together.”

Firth noted the enjoyment she witnessed from the recent pastie class where all the students got to where aprons. “They were just having the best time. How often do we have the opportunity to cook together or to make things together. In our culture, we don’t do that a whole lot. That is one of the rich opportunities that we at the Folk School offer,” she said.

Volunteers keep the doors open at the non-profit Ely Folk School. “Volunteers are essential to helping the EFS succeed,” said volunteer coordinator Diane Thomson. The EFS website lists dozens of opportunities for a variety of volunteer activities. “We never turn anyone away,” she said. As many as 50 individual people contributed time to the organization in the last year.

The EFS board continues the challenge of balancing their budget and staying afloat as they grow and expand. Olson presented their projected revenue for 2018:

Membership/Individual/Business Donations, $30,000;

Fundraising Campaigns (Raffle, Silent Auction), $1,250;

Foundation/Corporate Grants, $34,162;

Program Revenues (courses, events, store), $31,332;

Total Revenues, $96,744

“This is pretty optimistic,” Olson said, “but we are firm in believing that we need to pursue revenue and look to increase that. Our initial goal was that our program revenue would be at 40 percent. We are not quite their but continue to work toward that.” She noted that many folk schools around the country have that financial model.

Projected expenses for 2018 include:

General Expenses (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.), $60,644

Marketing Expenses (advertising, printing, etc.), $7,960

Course and Event Expenses, $13,140

Project Expenses (Dances, Forge, BBCP), $13,000

Total Expenses, $94,744

Projected Revenue over Expenses: $2,000

Looking forward, the EFS Board of Directors listed three areas of focus for the next year, fundraising and membership, marketing and board development.

Icenhour described a unique fundraising event in the works: “Mary Louise’s Walnut Potica Sale.”

She is donating the cost and materials to make 50 poticas and to sell them for $40 each with all proceeds going to the Folk School. They will be available for purchase on Tuesday, July 3. To reserve a traditional Slovenian-made walnut potica, call her at 218-365-6662. Look for upcoming advertisements for more information.

Icenhour plans to make five batches over the course of 10 days. “If this goes well, we’ll look at doing this again at Christmas and Easter,” she said.

Grants are also playing an important role in the financial success of the Folk School, Recently-awarded grants include:

 Marketing, IRRRB (2017), $4,500;

Birch Bark Canoe Project, Northland Foundation (2018), $10,000;

Dances, Donald G. Gardner Humanities Trust (2018-19), $2,932.

Olson said the board is also working on an application for an operating expenses grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. “This is the first of several operating grants we hope to pursue,” she said.

The Folk School facilities on Sheridan Street continue to grow. The teaching kitchen was installed last year. An addition on the north end of the building will add more classroom space and the red garage next door to the building will soon house a blacksmithing forge. “We are looking at a kiln donation and looking at adding a ceramics space,” Olson said.

Icenhour related a story about a couple from Side Lake who recently participated in her walnut potica class. “He was Slovenian and his mother and grandmother made potica for their traditional celebrations at Christmas, Easter, baptisms and weddings,” she said. “At the end of the class, they each had their rolls of potitca to take home, and he came up to me and insisted on giving me a hug. He then told me, ‘I know my grandmother is smiling today.’”


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